Major Appliances Barrel Into The New Millennium

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High-tech refinements and both evolutionary and revolutionary innovations have given the major appliance category a new gloss during the first half of the first year of the 21st century.

Sleek new industrial-inspired de-signs, enhanced efficiencies and the first glimmer of a new generation of Internet-enabled kitchen appliances are lifting white goods up from their traditional commodity status. In the process, the transformation is lifting the spirits of majap dealers and manufacturers eager to mine the rich margins that all the bells and whistles bring.

With the summer season and its attendant sales of air conditioners taking hold while larger, interest-rate-sensitive appliances take a breather, TWICE presents this six-month business review of white goods.

JANUARY · Life in the fast lane: Speed is the dominant theme among the dozen majap manufacturers exhibiting at the International Builders Show. The concept took the form of quick-cooking ovens from GE, Maytag and Whirlpool, and lightning-fast communication as suppliers an-nounced research into networking appliances with the Internet and other household products.

FEBRUARY · The first cut is the deepest: With its long awaited push to expand its majap business just getting under way, The Home Depot has temporarily stopped ordering white goods from Whirlpool, leaving GE as its sole large-appliance supplier. Although the chain declined to comment on the cut, observers believe the move is a reaction to delivery problems that had plagued Whirlpool during the third quarter of 1999. By contrast, the home improvement chain praised GE for "jumping through hoops" to meet its delivery requirements.

MARCH · Tops plays taps: Just two weeks after filing for bankruptcy protection, the newly renamed Tops Home Appliance pulls the plug on its operations. The chain had been in the red for four of the past five years and showed losses of $5.7 million for the first nine months of 1999. As part of the fire sale, leases on several of its stores have been turned over to Best Buy, which plans to enter the New York market later this year.

Circuit segregating white goods: Circuit City announces plans to build six to eight freestanding appliance-only stores in Florida and Virginia, and to remove white goods from the product mix in some 35 Superstores. The nation's No. 2 appliance chain says the new format is designed to increase consumer awareness of Circuit's expansive majap offering and to focus on upcoming high-tech innovations.

APRIL · K/BIS eyes the future: At the April Kitchen/Bath Industry Show in Chicago, futuristic prototypes share the spotlight with the next generation of current majap offerings. Concept white goods include home-networked appliances, portable refreshment centers and a special-edition Ford Windstar SUV featuring a miniature washer/dryer, refrigerator and microwave oven. As for next season's fare, highlights include two more double-oven Gemini ranges from Maytag, a new Nautilus dishwasher from GE, and a Jet Defrost microwave oven from Whirlpool that can evenly defrost 1 pound of frozen hamburger in 2 minutes.

Back in the saddle: After being temporarily dropped by The Home Depot as punishment for tardy shipments, Maytag's flagship and Jenn-Air brands will once again join GE within the home improvement chain's majaps aisle. The Depot will carry "virtually all of the most popular models" when a systemwide rollout brings the lines to all 900-plus stores by early December, a Maytag spokesperson says.

MAY · Electrolux redux: Frigidaire parent Electrolux AB has bought back the rights to its brand name in North America from floor care concern Electrolux LLC. The $50 million deal clears the way for the Swedish consumer products giant to market major appliances on these shores under its corporate moniker for the first time since selling off the brand in 1968. The company plans to reserve the name for new of top-of-the-line models.

New stores for Sears? Sears says it is exploring the possibility of opening a national chain of freestanding appliance and/or CE stores in the near future. News of the new formats surfaces at the retailer's annual meeting when retiring chairman Arthur Martinez discloses internal discussions about the proposed 12,000- to 15,000-square-foot units, aimed ostensibly at Best Buy, Circuit City, The Home Depot and Lowe's.

All in favor: An agreement is reached between appliance manufacturers, the U.S. Department of Energy, state governments and environmental groups that sets new efficiency standards for washers. The standards will save consumers billions in their water and electric bills, while federal tax credits will help subsidize suppliers' development and marketing costs. The pact awaits approval by Congress.


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